Alan Bennett’s wonderful, nostalgic trip down the halls of academe, “The History Boys,” makes its Los Angeles debut as a hybrid of the original Royal National Theater staging and a team of local thesps. Ahmanson production may lack the unforced magic of a company that has toured together for years, but a new ensemble’s excitement of discovery has its advantages, too. Company’s obvious delight in Bennett’s heady dialogue and emotionally rich situations makes for a provocative evening living up to the play’s awards and reputation.
Americans who don’t know O-levels from an O in the ground can appreciate the drama inherent in the youngsters’ entrance exam prep for the British crown jewels of Oxford and Cambridge. And because these exams are essay- and interview-based — multiple-viewpoint rather than multiple choice — they’re Bennett’s opportunity to take up fascinating but rarely dramatized issues on the nature of history and the purpose of education.
Traditional prof Dorothy (Charlotte Cornwell) has taught the eight history boys the facts; eccentric Mr. Chips Hector (Dakin Matthews) has had them memorize swaths of poetry and pop culture as an antidote to same. But go-getter new man Irwin (Peter Paige) knows how to merge everything they know into a unique, even perverse take on historical events that’ll stand out and impress readers.
Is it agreed that Stalin is a monster? “Find something, anything, to say in his defense,” Irwin says. “Truth is no more an issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.” It’s history as artistic creation — something Hector might be expected to appreciate, though a debate turns the two teachers into enemies.
Sexuality also plays a role (it’s a school, after all), pertinent to Bennett’s interest in the forces that mold us at our most malleable. Runt-of-this-litter Posner (Alex Brightman, too nasal and camp for comfort) has an obvious crush on the charismatic Dakin (Seth Numrich, plausible as anyone’s obscure object of desire), who shags the headmaster’s secretary but is intrigued by the intimate possibilities Irwin may offer. And then there’s Hector’s habit — deftly portrayed as lightly comic rather than criminal — of fondling his boys’ genitals during motorbike rides.
Matthews, laying further claim to the title of Southern California’s MVP, crafts a tarter and more consciously rationalizing Hector than Tony-winning Richard Griffiths did with his vulnerable, naughty-boy air. Matthews’ magisterial pedant has the confidence of genuine scholarship and a twisted sense of entitlement going for him, which makes his challenge to authority more overt and his breakdown, at the realization of the cheapness of his antics and the shell his life has become, even more pitiable.
Griffiths’ interp can always be referenced through the movie version, so it’s a pleasure to see another fine actor’s very different yet equally valid spin on a great role.
The same could be said of Cornwell’s Dorothy, wearily aware that praise for “the great foundation you’ve laid” is code for “as usual, we males find a woman lacking.” While Frances de la Tour’s patented deadpan drollery was a treat, Cornwell’s greater physical engagement and earnest sympathy offer welcome, unexpected colors.
Third member of Bennett’s academic troika is sour rather than sweet. Paige’s Irwin wears his emotions on his sleeve, and those emotions are too often restricted to irritation and fumbling discomfort. Missing from the perf is any joy in teaching, any relish in ideas crashing against each other. Even in the flash-forward scenes to his career as TV commentator, he seems cross rather than invigorated.
That some of the boys make little individual impression is mostly the text’s fault, but helmer Paul Miller, recreating Nicholas Hytner’s work without forcing a carbon copy, guides them to nuanced invention as a blended unit in their many group scenes, bolstered by JB Blanc’s strong coaching in the difficult Northern England Sheffield dialect. Indeed, the class’ enactment of a brothel and a WWI hospital in subjunctive and conditional French is a wonderful comic showpiece.
Designer Bob Crowley’s re-creation of pieces of schoolrooms and corridors at obtuse angles serves to emphasize the pressures of this hothouse environment, as does Mark Henderson’s play of light and shadow from low-hanging institutional lighting fixtures that bring intimacy to the usually cavernous Ahmanson stage.